Archive for Sexual Harassment

Investigating Sexual Harassment in Universities

Posted in Education with tags , on June 12, 2019 by telescoper

This morning I came across a piece in the Guardian about a report from the UK Office for Students about hate crime and sexual harassment in Universities.

One of the recommendations of the report is that that Universities should hire specialist staff to investigate sexual harassment.

I’ve thought a lot about this issue since I blogged about the Bode versus Mundell case a few years ago (here and here). I hope we can all agree that we need to strive to create working environments wherein harassment and bullying simply do not happen, but sadly they do happen and until that changes we need to find ways of dealing with the perpetrators fairly but firmly and promptly.

In another post I made two suggestions.

The first was that organizations of a sufficient size to bear the cost should have independent misconduct investigators rather than relying on staff from the same workplace. This role could even be fulfilled by someone from a different organization altogether. Universities, for example, could set up a shared resource to deal with this kind of thing. I’ve now come to the conclusion that such investigators should not be employees of the university in question, as they would come under pressure to hush things up – which clearly happens now. It seems to me that far too many institutions prioritize limiting reputational damage over doing the right thing for their staff and students.

Having independent investigators would avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest but, perhaps more importantly, a dedicated investigator could carry out the work much more quickly than a senior academic who is busy with many other things and who would probably have had only cursory training.

The other suggestion I made is that confidentiality agreements covering related disciplinary matters should become void if an employee leaves the institution, whether that is as a result of dismissal or because they leave before investigations are completed. That would put an end to the game of “pass the harasser”.

I am not saying that these will solve the problem completely. To mind they are necessary but not sufficient. Any further suggestions through the comments box are welcome.

Yet more sexual harassment in Astronomy

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on June 10, 2018 by telescoper

Yesterday I saw a thread on Twitter commencing with the following tweet by Dr Emma Chapman (now of Imperial College):

You can find the whole thread here; and here is one of the documents that have now been published:

I have met Dr Chapman and knew that she had endured sexual harassment in the recent past, but did not know any of the details of her case because they remained confidential until yesterday. They relate to sexual harassment by her PhD supervisor, Dr Filipe Abdalla of University College London (whom I don’t know personally). It has taken Dr Chapman two years to get documents relating to this case disclosed publicly. I also didn’t realise that episodes of harassment of other women were involved or that Dr Abdalla, who remains in post at UCL, has apparently been indulging in retaliatory behaviour towards those who have made complaints against his conduct. I am given to understand that Dr Abdalla is on a final written warning for his conduct.

I suggest you read the whole thread and form your own conclusions.

For what its worth, although I find it very hard to avoid the conclusion that University College London has handled this case abysmally at an institutional level, it is important to realise that failure to tackle sexual harassment properly is a systemic problem not confined to that particular institution. I know that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at UCL has fought very hard to tackle sexual harassment and discrimination, but efforts at such a level are not always helped by the attitudes of those in higher places.

I would like to take the opportunity to praise Emma Chapman for having the determination to get this out in the open (at considerable personal cost) and her legal advisors for finding a way through the wall of silence.

I have blogged a number of times before about sexual harassment cases, but I’ll take this opportunity to repeat what I said in an earlier post:

Failure to act strongly when such behaviour is proven just sends out the message that the institution doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously. In my view, confidentiality is needed during an investigation – to protect both sides and indeed the person doing the investigation – but if the conclusion is that misconduct has taken place, it should be acknowledged publicly. Justice has to be seen to be done. Sexual assault, of course, is another matter entirely – that should go straight to the police to deal with.

I’ve talked about protocols and procedures, but these can only ever apply a sticking-plaster solution to a problem which is extremely deeply rooted in the culture of many science departments and research teams across the world. These tend to be very hierarchical, with power and influence concentrated in the hands of relatively few, usually male, individuals. A complaint about harassment generally has to go up through the management structure and therefore risks being blocked at a number of stages for a number of reasons. This sort of structure reinforces the idea that students and postdocs are at the bottom of the heap and discourages them from even attempting to pursue a case against someone at the top.

The unhealthy power structures I’ve discussed will not be easy to dismantle entirely, but there are simple things that can be done to make a start. “Flatter”, more democratic, structures not only mitigate this problem but are also probably more efficient by, for example, eliminating the single-point failures that plague hierarchical organisational arrangements.

We are very far indeed from eliminating harassment or the conditions that allow it to continue but although cases like this are painful, I think they at least demonstrate that we are beginning to acknowledge that there’s a problem.

I think we’re now long past the point where acknowledgement is necessary. It’s now time to take action against the individuals and institutions responsible for perpetuating the problem.

`Pass-the-Harasser’ … to Turku

Posted in Education with tags , , , on February 2, 2018 by telescoper

I noticed yesterday evening that there has recently been a substantial increase in the number of people viewing my posts about Christian Ott, the former Caltech Professor who eventually left his job there after harassing and committing ‘gender-based discrimination’ against two female students there.

It wasn’t difficult to find out why there had been an upsurge in interest: Christian Ott has got a new job, at the University of Turku, in Finland. As far as I understand the situation – and please correct me if I’m wrong – he was `head-hunted’ for this position, so his appointment was not the result of an open competition and it seems the position was specifically created just for him.

UPDATE: the post was advertised here, but the gap between the deadline for applications – 10th December 2017 – and the appointment being announced is too short to be consistent with the usual processes of academic appointments. Moreover, the advertised job descriptions includes teaching duties; see below for why this is relevant.

Not surprisingly both the appointment itself and the circumstances by which it was brought about have provoked considerable reaction. A group of Finnish astronomers and astrophysicists has written a Statement on Harassment, which you can sign in support (here if you’re Finnish and/or based in Finland) and here for other concerned academics. I have signed the second one.

I have two personal comments to make. The first is that I’ve seen people say that Ott should get a `second chance’, and it would be unfair for his past transgressions to force him out of academia.

This is what I wrote in an earlier piece about this:

It remains to be seen what Christian Ott does. I am not familiar with his work but he is, by all accounts, a talented scientist so he may well find a position at another institution. If he does, I hope, for his and for his future colleagues’ sake, that he has learned his lesson.

I think that makes it clear that I have no desire to see Christian Ott ruined, but I don’t think that means that I think due process should be subverted to help him, as appears to be the case here. In fact I’m bound to say that if I were a Head of Department I wouldn’t under any circumstances have offered this man a position, after what he did.

Had Ott committed a different disciplinary offence (such as plagiarism or other research misconduct) he would not have found it so easy to get another job than because it was `just’ harassment. Why should these offences be treated so differently?

Once again, research esteem seems to trump everything else. That attitude is one of the most poisonous elements in modern academia. The `Great Man of Science’ is indeed a dangerous myth.

The second thing is that, as far as I understand it (and again please correct me if I’m wrong), Ott’s new position is as an `independent researcher’ and he will have no teaching duties and minimal contact with students. I suppose that is supposed to make everything alright. It doesn’t. Indeed, there are many academics who would regard a cushy research-only contract as a reward rather than a cost. It’s a slap in the face for teaching staff at Turku that funds have been found to create a bespoke position in the way that has been done here.

As always, comments clarifications and corrections are welcome through the comments box.

UPDATE: 7/2/2018. The appointment of Dr Ott has been cancelled.

Sexual Harassment at UK Universities

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on March 6, 2017 by telescoper

I only have time for a very short post today, but it seems important to point out an article about sexual harassment in UK universities which has just appeared that gives some measure of the scale of the problem. There’s also an accompanying piece that lists the number of cases in different institutions across the country over the past five years or so. If you work in UK university you might want to see how many sexual harassment cases have been reported there. In most institutions investigations into such matters are carried out confidentially, and the outcomes are generally not announced publicly. I think it is welcome that real information is starting to become available.

In most cases there are only a few reported instances per institution since 2011 – the most is 10 (at the University of Nottingham) – and very few seem to have led to persons leaving their job. These numbers represent a lower limit, of course, as not all cases are reported officially. I won’t comment on the general reliability of the figures, except to say that I doubt if all institutions have reported in the same way because their internal procedures may differ, which makes fair comparisons difficult.

Note that the report covers both harassment of students by staff and harassment of staff by other staff.

Anyway, in case you’re wondering what the legal definition of sexual harassment is, here is an excerpt from my current employer’s guidance:

Sexual Harassment has a specific definition under the Equality Act 2010. Sexual Harassment includes:

Conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of (i) violating an individual’s dignity or (ii) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment; or

Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or that is related to gender reassignment or sex that has the purpose or effect of (i) violating an individual’s dignity or (ii) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment and that the individual is treated less favourably because they have rejected or submitted to the conduct.


In deciding whether conduct has the effect referred to above each of the following must be taken into account:

the perception of the person claiming harassment and

the other circumstances of the case and

whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect.[1]

Harassment which is related to a person’s sex, gender identity, race (including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin), disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief, or age, can constitute unlawful discrimination for which staff and students can be held personally liable.

[1] In deciding if behaviour amounts to (unlawful) harassment, it is important to take into account all circumstances, including in particular the perception of the individual who feels that harassment has taken place and whether it can reasonably be considered that harassment has taken place. What the individual would determine to be offensive is a key issue in determining whether harassment has taken place, however there is also an element of whether a reasonable person would view the behaviour as offensive if they were in the same circumstances as the individual finding the behaviour offensive.


Bullying and Sexual Harassment at CSIRO

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on November 22, 2016 by telescoper

No sooner has the deluge of emails I’ve been receiving about the Case of Bode versus Mundell started to dry up when I hear about another alarming story revolving around sexual harassment in Astronomy.

This time the revelations concern the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the federal government agency for scientific research in Australia, and specifically relate the organization’s handling of  numerous instances of  sexual harassment and bullying that have driven several female astronomers out of the organization’s Division of Astronomy and Space Science (CASS). You can listen here listen to a radio programme about this that was broadcast last Sunday on the Australian station ABC. It’s not an easy thing to listen to, but I urge you to make the effort.

Once again one of the key issues raised by this is that of confidentiality. As outlined by the official response from CASS, there are indeed very good reasons for respecting confidentiality:

To make details of our individual investigations public, we could prevent people from coming forward in the future or we could lead to situations of trial by the public or media without full information or a proper process.

Fair enough, but confidentiality cuts both ways. Once again I quote the official response:

Around 200 people on average work in the astronomy and space science business unit. In the past 8 years we have had 16 formal allegations of inappropriate behaviour within this business unit. The cases varied in their degree of seriousness and all of the allegations were investigated. Three of the allegations were of a sexual nature, with two of these three allegations upheld.

Two cases of alleged inappropriate behaviour per year for eight years seems rather a lot for a unit of this size. Granted that isn’t known how many of those are genuine, but in my view even one case is one case too many. However, what is really worrying is that two of the allegations that were “of a sexual nature” were upheld but the outcomes of these investigations were not made known to staff in CASS. I’m all for confidentiality and due process, but if one thing is going to stop people “coming forward in the future” it’s the perception that nothing will be done if they do. There just has to be a better way of dealing with misconduct allegations than what CSIRO (and all organizations) I’ve worked in do now. I hope we’re past the stage of denying that there is a problem. The question is how to make things better.

I’ve thought a lot about this since I blogged about the Bode versus Mundell case (here and here). We should all agree that we need to strive to create working environments wherein harassment and bullying simply do not happen, but sadly they do and until that changes we need to find ways of dealing with the perpetrators fairly but firmly and promptly.

I have two concrete suggestions to make.

The first is that organizations of a sufficient size to bear the cost should have independent misconduct investigators rather than relying on staff from the same workplace. This role could even be fulfilled by someone from a different organization altogether. Universities, for example, could set up a shared resource to deal with this kind of thing. Such a move would avoid any perceived conflict of interest but, more importantly, a dedicated investigator could carry out the work much more quickly than a senior academic who is busy with many other things.

The other suggestion is that confidentiality agreements covering disciplinary should become void if an employee leaves the institution, whether that is as a result of dismissal or because they leave before investigations are completed. That would put an end to the game of “pass the harasser”.

There are probably serious problems with both these suggestions and I’d be happy to take criticism through the comments box below.

The Case of Bode versus Mundell

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 22, 2016 by telescoper

Getting ready to come in and help with today’s Undergraduate Open Day today at Cardiff University, I checked Twitter this morning and found a number of tweets about a shocking news story that I feel obliged to comment on.  The astronomy community in the United Kingdom is fairly small and relatively close-knit, which makes this case especially troubling, but it does have far wider ramifications in the University sector and beyond.

I don’t usually link to stories in the Daily Mail, but you can find the item here. The report relates to a libel action taken by Astronomy Professor Mike Bode of Liverpool John Moores University against Professor Carole Mundell, a former employee of that institution who is now Head of the Astrophysics group at the University of Bath.  Carole Mundell is a highly regarded extragalactic observational astronomer who works primarily on gamma-ray bursters and their implications for cosmology.

The case revolves around allegations of sexual harassment (and, according to the Daily Mail, sexual assault) made against another former employee of Liverpool John Moores, Dr Chris Simpson, by a female student, and the allegation by Professor Mundell that Professor Bode wrote a misleading reference on behalf of Dr Simpson that omitted mention of the pending allegations and allowed him to move to a post in South Africa before the investigations into them could be concluded. Professsor Bode claimed that this allegation was defamatory and sued Professor Mundell for libel and slander.

The Daily Mail story is not very illuminating as to the substance of the litigation but a full account of the case of Bode versus Mundell can be found here. In fact the case did not go to a full trial hearing, but summarily dismissed before getting that far on the grounds that it would certainly fail; you can find more information about the judgment at the above link.

I had no idea any of this was going on until this morning. The story left me shocked, angry and dismayed but also full of admiration for Carole Mundell’s courage and determination in fighting this case. I think I’ll refrain from commenting further on the conduct of Mike Bode and Chris Simpson, or indeed that of Liverpool John Moores University, except to say that I hope this affair does not end with this failed action and that wider lessons can be learned from what happened in this case. I suspect that Liverpool John Moores is going to have some seriously bad publicity about this, but of greater concern to the wider community is the apparent failure of process in dealing with the allegations about Chris Simpson.

Note added in Clarification (29/10/2016). I am not making any statement here about whether I think the allegations about Dr Simpson were true or false or what the outcome of the disciplinary process might have been. I have absolutely no idea about that. What I do know (as it is in the public domain) is that the investigation lasted five months and did not reach a conclusion. That, to me, indicates a failure of process.

Coincidentally, yesterday saw the publication of a report by the Universities UK Task Force examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students.  The document includes a number of rather harrowing case studies that make for difficult reading, but it’s an important document. A new set of guidelines has been issued relating to how to handle allegations that involve behaviour that may be criminal (such as sexual assault).  I urge anyone working in the HE sector (or pretty much anywhere else for that matter) to read the recommendations and to act on them.

I have no idea whether sexual harassment is an increasing problem on campus or what we are seeing is increased reporting, but it is clear that this is a serious problem in the UK’s universities. On paper, the policies and procedures universities already have in place for should be able to deal with many of the issues raised in the Task Force report, but there seems to me to be an individual and perhaps even institutional reluctance to follow these procedures properly. The fear of reputational damage seems to be standing in the way of the genuine cultural change that we need.

Bode versus Mundell may well prove to be a landmark case that makes the astronomy community come to terms with the sexual harassment going on in its midst. As much I’d like to be proved wrong, however, I don’t think it is likely to be the last scandal that will come to light. Carole Mundell’s courage may well lead to more people coming forward, and perhaps changes in practice will mean they are pursued more vigorously. Cultural transformation may prove to be a painful process, but it will prove to have been worth it.





Defining Sexual Harassment

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 25, 2016 by telescoper

Since I spent this morning at a training session about preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace, and after the latest high-profile sexual harassment case at Caltech I thought it might be useful to share my current employer’s definition of what may constitute sexual harassment in the workplace. In my earlier post on harassment I talked mainly about the processes that take place when it is alleged, but I didn’t include a clear statement of how sexual harassment is defined.

The following is taken from the University of Sussex’s Policy to Prevent Bullying and Harassment at Work (which is in the public domain):

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and involves unwanted and unwelcome attention of a sexual nature. This may be physical or verbal or involve the denigration of an individual on sexual grounds or by sexual means. Some examples of sexual harassment are:

  • indecent assault
  • deliberate physical contact to which the individual has not consented or had the opportunity to object to
  • offensive or derogatory language alluding to a person’s private life or sexual behaviour or orientation by innuendo, jokes or remarks
  •  provocative suggestions
  • pressing an individual to accept unwelcome invitations
  • the display of suggestive or pornographic material
  • unwelcome repeated telephone calls, letters or emails
These examples should not be seen as exhaustive: any unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature which creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment for the recipient may be regarded as sexual harassment.